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The Internal Structure of Adverb Phrases in English

By Heather Marie Kosur

Adverbs are traditionally defined as words that "describe verbs, adjectives, other adverbs, and sentences." This article identifies the one grammatical form—adverb phrases—that can modify adverbs as well as the rules for forming comparative and superlative adverbs in English.

Adverb Phrases

The only grammatical form that can appear in an adverb phrase in English is another adverb phrase. Adverb phrases are phrases with an adverb functioning as the head of the phrase plus any other adverbs functioning as adverb phrase modifiers. Adverb phrases perform the grammatical function of adverb phrase modifier within adverb phrases. For example:

  • Adverb Phrase | Adverb
  • irritably | moodily
  • extremely | well
  • quite | surprisingly
  • suspiciously | stealthily
  • not | quickly

Adverb phrases always precede the main adverb within an adverb phrase.

Comparative and Superlative Adverbs

Similar to the majority of two-syllable prototypical English adjectives, most English adverbs take the adverbs more and most in the comparative and superlative forms. For example:

  • awkwardly – more awkwardly – most awkwardly
  • fiercely – more fiercely – most fiercely
  • merrily – more merrily – most merrily
  • often – more often – most often
  • sternly – more sternly – most sternly

The adverbs more and most also function as adverb phrase modifiers within comparative and superlative adverb phrase constructions. For a handful of English adverbs, however, degrees of modification are expressed through suffixes or irregular comparative and superlative forms. For example:

  • badly – worse – worse
  • early – earlier – earliest
  • far – farther/further – farthest/furthest
  • fast – faster – fastest
  • hard – harder – hardest
  • late – later – latest
  • little – less – least
  • well – better – best

Irregular adverbs in English cannot take other adverb phrases as adverb phrase modifiers including more and most. For example:

  • Correct – Incorrect
  • worse – more worse
  • fastest – more fastest
  • later – most later
  • less – more less
  • best – most best

Comparative and superlative adverbs cannot typically take additional adverb phrases functioning as adverb phrase modifiers.

Printable Download

For a printable reference study sheet of the grammatical forms that can appear in adverb phrases in English as well as the rules for forming comparative and superlative adverbs, please download the supplement to this article The Internal Structure of Adverb Phrases in English Reference Sheet.